My parents are nearly 90. They couldn’t spank me if they wanted to. And they seem quite intent on spending whatever inheritance I might have otherwise received. Hence, no reward and no punishment — not if we weren’t in relationship.
Therefore, to the legalist, I have no incentive to help them or please them. Their pleasure at my good works and disappointments at my sorriness should be entirely irrelevant, because they can only reward me with a smile and nod of approval and only punish me by being hurt by my actions.
But … they’re my parents, I love them, and they love me. And therefore their feelings toward me matter quite a lot — even if they never say a thing to me. I know them well enough to know exactly how they feel, and so, without a word or a glance, I’m deeply motivated by how they react to the decisions I make.
Why do I care? Well, I’ll let someone else play Freud. For today’s purposes, the reality is that I do. A lot. And it’s a perfectly natural way for anyone to feel who enjoys a good relationship with his parents.
God calls himself our “Father” and gives us his Spirit to place us in an Abba relationship with him. The relationship I just described with my parents is exactly the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. Why can’t we see it?
You see, when we view our relationship with God as God describes it — as a parent and child, as a husband and wife, as family — then the questions about why we would do good works despite God’s gracious nature become, well, kind of cold and distant and, I’m sure, hurtful to God.
Imagine saying to your earthly father, “I won’t serve you because I have no fear of punishment from you!” When did love leave the relationship? Why do we so strenuously insist that we’ve been commanded to love God (true) and yet persistently fail to see how that changes everything? Have we never experienced love in this life?
Indeed, I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve been so bludgeoned by the command to love — on penalty of hellfire — that we’ve never felt the love of God. It’s as though we’ve been presented an abusive father, who whips and brutalizes us to make us act as though we love him out of terror.
What horrible preaching! What atrocious doctrine! What shameful leadership! But, you see, many of us have never experienced love from the elders of our churches. Some have never felt loved by even the preacher. Indeed, so many congregations insist on a fear-based gospel that they hide the gospel from their members.
In fact, I’ve had readers pitch a fit to read out of the Bible such verses as —
(1Jo 4:18 ESV) 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
We prefer our image of God as an abusive father to the picture John paints for us. It’s too good. It’s too generous. Someone might misunderstand!
But, no, the reality is that if we define our relationship with God in terms of fear, we’ve misunderstood. Yes, sure, there are verses that speak of fearing God, but read them 20 times a day and post them over your doors and put them in your lockets, and 1 John 4:18 will still there — and it means what it says. It just that not everyone has yet been perfected in love.
(Rom 8:15 ESV) 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
To build our relationship on fear is to fall backward into slavery. It’s to have an imperfect love. It’s not the goal.
Just as is true of my earthly parents, there was a time when fear was a very keen motivator. I was, after all, very immature. But thanks to their discipline and love, I grew up — and I like my grown up relationship with my parents so much better.
So, yes, fear has a place, but it’s not the end or the goal. It’s for the immature. For those who really understand God, who truly know their Father by the power of the Spirit, there is no fear — only love. And love motivates far more. Indeed, it’s the difference between freedom and slavery.